So I dug up this piece that I wrote for The Record back in October 1989, when I gave up writing movies reviews for what turned out to be a decade.


I always thought that when I called it quits as a movie critic, it would be easy to look back and take stock. Now that occasion has arrived: By the time you read this, I will have already moved on to relative anonymity as an assignment editor at The Record.

My career as a critic began (auspiciously enough) with "Heaven's Gate" in April 1981, and ends Friday, when The Record publishes my review of "Fat Man and Little Boy." Reaching into a stack of 18 envelopes stuffed with reviews (I quickly give up any notion of counting them) even provides an arbitrary midpoint: "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," dated July 10, 1985.

That it feels as if I saw "Beyond Thunderdome" 10 or 15 years ago, that I can barely summon up memories of even the legendary flop "Heaven's Gate" _ earlier titles, like the Bora Bora adventure "Beyond the Reef," elicit not even a flicker of recognition _ says a lot about the nature of the job. Any critic who pretends that reviewing movies is just like being a regular moviegoer, only more so, is either a liar or incredibly self-deluded.

For starters, few people see as many as 13 movies a week, as I sometimes did during the peak Christmas seasons. And if they do, it's movies of their choice _ not the bizarre mix imposed on us by the whims of distributors. Few moviegoers have tastes so eclectic that they regularly take in esoteric French films, slasher movies, and Bill Murray comedies. But it hasn't been unusual for me to see all three genres in the same day _ and try to deal with each on its own merits.

One of the questions I'm most often asked is where I go to see movies. Most often, I saw them in screening rooms with a handful of other critics _ not exactly your typical audience, but it cut down considerably on the physical and mental wear-and-tear. Movie companies often screen movies in real theaters, but their invited audiences tend to be wildly enthusiastic: Their reactions are no more representative or reliable than the critics'.

Now and then, I've seen films in the company of real, paying customers. These tended to be the worst movies, ones that studios wouldn't show to critics in advance of opening. Often, the audiences were more entertaining than the movies. I can barely recall the plot of "Cujo," but I'll never forget the 6-foot-5 gentleman who stood up during its first matinee at Manhattan's National Twin and shouted at Dee Wallace Stone, who was on screen being torn apart by a dog: "That's what you get for being promiscuous, bitch!"

Looking back over eight years, some of my judgments are difficult to defend, to say the least. One Friday in June 1981, I panned "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and turned in a rave review of Mel Brooks' "History of the World, Part I." It becomes only slightly more fathomable when I see that I had reviewed six other movies for that same date.

Time is a luxury often unavailable to daily newspaper reviewers who, if they're lucky, might see a movie on Tuesday morning and have 24 hours to file. Many reviews are written under considerably greater time constraints: A few are written within 30 minutes after the credits roll.

The best part of this job was being able to see movies before everybody else, untainted (usually) by my colleagues' opinions. The downside was suffering through hundreds of stinkers. And, in almost every case, I did sit all the way through them, no matter how bad. Because that was my job.

When I started thinking about this final column, I had vague aspirations of compiling a 10-best list for all of my moviegoing years. I quickly abandoned the idea, once I realized that for my opinions to have any real meaning would require re-seeing dozens of movies I had raved about to see if they still held up. Unfortunately, being a movie critic leaves little time to reconfirm one's opinions. But based on recent viewings of both films, my gut feeling is that the two great American movies of the 1980s are "The Right Stuff" and "Once Upon a Time in America." "Batman" and "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" may also fall into this category, but it's far too early to even guess whether they'll stand the test of time.

Finally, I'd like to thank those of you who took the time to write, even if it was just to declare my opinions worthless. At least I knew somebody out there was reading and reacting to my thoughts. There are few things more gratifying for a writer _ especially one who spends such a large portion of his life in a darkened room.

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